Don’t Get Red-Carded: Two Phrases to Avoid in Research Manuscripts
Getting yellow-carded by journal referees is no fun either, but at least you'll stay in the publication game.
Manuscript peer reviewers help editors decide what gets published in scholarly journals. By weighing in on whether manuscripts should get published and why (or why not) and, for those that do get published, by influencing the content of articles via their feedback to authors, these volunteers perform an important, but often unheralded, "community" service to journals, to submitting authors, and to journal readers.
While watching my brother play semi-pro soccer years ago, I came to appreciate the necessary role of referees as neutral-but-interested experts whose no-nonsense officiating allows sporting competitions to function. They have handy little penalty cards colored yellow (caution) and red (eject from game) to help them handle agitated players when they don't exhibit good sportsmanship, as soccer players are sometimes wont to do.
Journal referees, like their soccer counterparts, are interested in promoting a game: scholarly publication. They support the function of the game, which is to have high-quality manuscripts published in the journal(s) for which they referee. In order to do that, journal referees must be willing to issue a red card (reject a manuscript) or yellow card (request revision), not necessarily because of poor sportsmanship per se, but because the content is not deemed worthy of publication as is.
Your goal (pun absolutely intended) is to not force journal peer reviewers into a corner, whereby your writing gives them little choice but to card you. Even small changes in your writing behavior can help.
Many of you have no doubt read JACR Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bruce Hillman's trio of blogposts about the Deadly Sins of Writing in June,July, and August last year. When it comes to writing research manuscripts, not only is it important to write well generally, but also to be a great "closer".
Near the end of almost every Discussion section of the many manuscripts I've peer-reviewed is some variant of two cringe-worthy phrases: "There are limitations to this study" and "More research needs to be done." If you are a manuscript reviewer, doubtless you are nodding your head in agreement. Some of you may even recognize yourselves as having put something like one or both of these phrases in your own manuscripts.
As I stare at those two phrases, my right hand is itching to pull out a red card, and if my left hand wasn't already occupied with restraining my right hand, it would already be holding a yellow card overhead.
The two phrases (and getting carded by reviewers) are easily avoidable. How? Just don't write them. Ever.
As a fellow human being, I think I understand why these phrases are used almost reflexively: they are default introductions to paragraphs that should need no introducing. Why? Because they could be given their own subsections in the manuscript. Limitations and directions for future research are the Rodney Dangerfields of manuscript Discussions: they get no respect.
When you want describe the statistical methods you used to analyze your data, there is usually a subheading ("Statistical Methods" or "Statistical Analysis") in the Materials and Methods section. No need for an awkward introductory sentence like: "We used three statistical methods to analyze our results." Instead, the subheading serves that purpose so you can dive right into talking about t-tests, ANOVA, and the like.
And so, I plead with journal editors everywhere to treat limitations and directions for future research the same way in the Discussion section by giving them a little respect: their own subheadings. Until that happens, I implore authors to leave out the little introductory phrases and to just start describing the limitations of your study, offering your suggestions for how your research results might form the basis for other studies, and/or what gaps in your research need to be addressed and how that could be done.
It's a win-win; you probably didn't want to include those awkward phrases anyway and peer reviewers will appreciate it. Of course, if your research design is weak, your study poorly conducted, and the overall manuscript inadequate, simply not including two trite phrases near the end of your Discussion may not make much difference in how peer reviewers rate your manuscript. However, if your manuscript is middling but you end with a thoughtful and meaningful discussion, it may not be enough to score an "Accept" decision, or even save your manuscript from getting the yellow card of "Major Revision and Resubmission", but maybe, just maybe, you will be spared the red card of "Reject – No Resubmission".
Of course, being reasonable and humble when writing your Discussion is as, if not more, important than any overused phrase, and represents the manuscript equivalent of good sportsmanship. Peer reviewers can see right through flimsy arguments no matter how opaque you think you've made them, just like soccer refs can tell when a player is feigning an injury after being fouled. Referees and reviewers have little cards in their pockets and they're not afraid to use them.